Engaging Students in their Community: Hood River Middle School Outdoor Classroom Project


arboretum 2Hood River Middle School Outdoor Classroom Project

The Outdoor Classroom Project is a work in progress where students are the researchers, engineers, designers, architects, builders, and users of a multidisciplinary, multi-sensory learning experience.

What you see when you approach the schoolgrounds at Hood River Middle School is nothing short of remarkable. From solar panels on the roof to a working greenhouse in the back, Hood River Middle School exhibits the markings of a unique and visionary school of the future.

As more and more schools around the country are beginning to organize their curriculum to include concepts of ecology, community, and sustainability, some programs, through innovation, vision and determination, move forward in meshing those concepts into a cohesive, integrated and successful program and serve as a model for others to follow. The Hood River Middle School Outdoor Classroom Project has become an exemplary program that began small and grew to encompass an ecological framework that gives students a unique blend of science, technology and permaculture that connects them to real world issues within their community.

Since 1998, science teacher Michael Becker has guided a program that offers students a higher level of connectivity between school and community. Using a hands-on approach to solving real-life problems, students at HRMS accelerate through the basic skills and concepts outlined in the Oregon Academic Benchmarks. The Outdoor Classroom Project is a work in progress where students are the researchers, engineers, designers, architects, builders, and users of a multidisciplinary, multi-sensory learning experience. The Outdoor Classroom Project connects students to key concepts in sustainability through a field based, experience-driven curriculum. Key themes of the project include Diversity, Water, Food, Energy, and Waste.

The Outdoor Classroom Project is divided into three separate strands.

Student harvest from the garden.

Student harvest from the garden.

Strand 1. Garden Project

The Garden Project has been developing learning laboratory sites on-campus for 6 years. The Garden Project follows a set of ideas called Permaculture, a term developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Permaculture is an ecologically based development design tool that examines the links between water, shelter, plants, animals, and energy. By seeking to create gardens that are ecologically diverse, biologically sustainable, and economically productive one must take into account a wide array of variables. In these variables we find rich opportunities for math, science, writing, and social issues.

Students take tremendous pride, ownership, and responsibility for their work in the outdoor laboratory. The gardens offer an ideal interface to connect with the outside world through a multitude of avenues from selling a tomato plant, to creating a community composting system, to understanding cutting edge active solar technologies, global agriculture systems, and the complex energy grid we are part of. Connecting to a sense of place in a deeper and ultimately practical way provides students a secure launch pad to explore roles and connections at a larger scale. These connections are where the real learning and personal development take place for students. This type of learning ends the eternal question of, “When will I ever use this?” Students don’t just read about it, they are active learners and members of a larger community of research and learning.

Students installing solar electric system with electrician.

Students installing solar electric system with electrician.

Students involved in this project are seen in a new light by other members of the science and business community. The outside world gets to experience students as engaged, respectful people with important learning goals and agendas. Students become teachers.

Conversely, students are able to interface with professionals from a variety of backgrounds and make connections of how school choices may lead to career paths. Most importantly, students interact with adults that are striving lifelong learners outside the educational realm, validating the importance of their studies now. This project is a bridge between school and the world.

Our students plan and grow gardens that provide food for student feasts and celebrations through the year and also a dedicated set of students work spring and summer at the

Gorge Grown Farmer’s Market that happens here at school each Thursday.

Student scientist in the field.

Student scientist in the field.

Strand 2. Outdoor School

This past spring marked the fourth year of our independent Outdoor School Program. Students travel from Hood River to Brooks Memorial State Park Environmental Learning Center, for a two-night, three-day field-science experience.

By traveling out of the local environment we are able to experience a new ecological niche and expand our understanding of Columbia Gorge systems. Students are involved in a water quality assessment of the headwaters of the Little Klickitat, study the amazing array of wildflowers on the high slopes above camps Ponderosa Pine forests, and they track and study the diverse wildlife of the this edge habitat.

After spending three days studying the systems of this new place, students are engaged in a land-use simulation activity in which they have to account for increased human habitation development within the parks borders, a very real situation in our home town.

Students stay in cabins with parent volunteer chaperones, eat family style meals in the dining hall and have campfire each night. Students regularly pick this experience as the highlight of their 6th grade year. Many of out students come from Hispanic families where camping is not a cultural norm and so for many of our students this is a huge “first”. First away from families overnight, first time in the mountains, first time seeing wildlife, all huge experiences in the life of a child, and often for parents as well.

Starting last year high school students from the AP Biology and Ecology class are helping teach field study and staying in cabins with students. This current school year we will have high school students that went to our program as 6th graders, offering them another chance to be part of our project.

Student habitat analysis work in the park has resulted in grant funding through the Washington State Park service to complete habitat restoration projects that our students have identified as a need. We have developed a unique relationship with the park Rangers and they are an integral part of our program.

Elliot 2

Students with Mr. Becker on the climb to view the Eliot Glacier on Mt. Hood.

Strand 3. Alpinee Outdoor Research Program

The Alpinees were a Mountain Education and Search and Rescue Organization in Hood River started after World War II. In 2007, the club decided to disband and began looking for an heir to its assets. The club owns a historic lodge in Hood River that served as their base of operations. This lodge is currently for sale and after the close of sale approximately $200,000.00 will be  placed in trust to provide annual funds expressly for the purpose of taking students on outdoor experience field trips. This fund will provide a source of transportation funds for many years to come. Based on the growth of the fund, there will be consistent funding to weather the variability of school trip budgets. The fund has two main student goals:

  1. To expose students to a variety of lifelong outdoor pursuits, in all seasons.
  2. To engage students in field research in the natural sciences.

The funds are earmarked expressly for student transportation costs and teacher training.

Research partners are still being developed, but include the Hood River County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Gorge Ecology Institute and the US Forest Service. By putting students in the field with real tasks that have detailed and specific reporting goals, student expectations and deliverables increase dramatically. Students understand that this is real work, not just something headed for the recycle bin. The interaction between field professionals and students is a huge added benefit.

The combination of the day long field-science trips, the outdoor campus laboratories and the three day Outdoor School Program immerses students into fieldwork in a variety of settings, seasons and tasks. By having such a variety of experiences over the entire school year we are able to capitalize on the learning opportunities and give students a myriad of ways to apply, express, and present their learning to an array of audiences.

The new and very exciting development in the project is our new science and music complex. Voters approved a bond that will construct an approximately 5000 square foot complex that will house a large music center with excellent sound acoustics, practice rooms and plenty of instrument storage and also a large science laboratory classroom. The science classroom will have a grant funded 1000 square foot Victorian Glasshouse Conservatory directly attached for student experiments in botany, horticulture and aquaculture. The building is targeting beyond LEED Platinum certification, and has set a goal of reaching The Living Building Challenge. This goal has at it’s base standards a building that is 55% more energy efficient than code, creates it’s own energy on a net zero cycle, catches and stores rain for its water needs and deals with all solid waste on site. In a project like this, the student learning opportunities are endless and don’t have to wait for completion of the structure. Students have been involved in the design phase from day one and worked with many of the professionals side by side on the planning. This building will be a showcase in what is possible for a public building to achieve.

For more information on this program, contact Michael Becker at mbecker@hoodriver.k12.or.us

Read interview with Michael Becker

2 Responses to Engaging Students in their Community: Hood River Middle School Outdoor Classroom Project

  1. Riley Meinershagen September 1, 2011 at 3:06 am #

    You were on the radio today. Good for you. KBOO was airing the VBC talks and yours caught my attention. I am about to enter a Master’s Program in Science Teaching at Portland State University. I am hoping to focus my studies on the benefits of the sorts of projects you have done and how we can repeat them elsewhere. I would like to know a lot more about your philosophy of permaculture in education, and, more concretely, about the particular projects at your school. If possible, I would love to come visit.
    Thanks!

  2. John Bartlett December 30, 2012 at 11:19 pm #

    Wow what an amazing journey you are taking your kids on! I have been working on a permaculture garden at my middle school for the past year and a half and really want to continue it as a well-established, long-lasting part of our school. I’d love to hear back from you about any ideas that you may have for me. I love the solar power unit and all your wonderful links to the community. I have been to the Great Northwest before, but I am a teacher in the Great Southeast.

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